When Maharani Berg opened her third Good Karma vegetarian restaurant in the DeLisle community near Pass Christian recently, she thought only a few people would show up for the soft opening. The response caught her by surprise. “One hundred people came in that night,” she said. “It was the first time I ran out of food for an opening. I didn’t expect that many people to be there.”
Word of the “100 percent vegetarian and vegan friendly” restaurant on Kiln-Delisle Road spread quickly through social media sites among fans of her popular restaurants in Gulfport and Ocean Springs where they enjoy lunch specials like ramen with tofu and veggie burgers.
Berg, who prepares the food for all three locations, is as surprised about being in the restaurant business as she was about the recent opening turnout.
“I am not a professional,” the Malayasian native admits. “Cooking is not my thing but sometimes you have to listen to a calling.”
Berg had only cooked food to sell at the annual Herb Festival in Ocean Springs. It was her close friend Beverly Nava who urged her to open a restaurant. She took that advice five years ago and now when she looks back, she thinks, “My God, that was a bold start. I just went blindly into it but something guided me.”
Then her friend Beverly left the area, leaving Berg on her own to operate a restaurant that was off the beaten path and with little foot traffic but she said she expected customers would find her. A few trickled in but on the fourth day, there were no customers. “I thought, “this is crazy. What did I do.”
Finally, someone from a nearby Oriental food store bought carry out and soon afterwards called Berg. “She said, ‘I just ate your food and you better not stop doing this. Whatever you need I will help. You will be successful. I took her word seriously and never looked back. I ran with it like crazy.”
Then after a year and a half, with her friend back home to help, Berg said it was time to branch out so she opened the Ocean Springs restaurant and Beverly became the manager. “It’s been going like crazy.” Berg said. All three restaurants serve lunch during the week and the Pass Christian location also serves Saturday dinner. The DeLisle restaurant manager is Iswari Rosario. She and all those involved in the restaurants are volunteers.
Customers sit down and everything is brought to them: first the drink, then salad, next soup, the main meal and finally dessert. “Eighty percent of the customers like the concept,” she said. “They don’t have to choose.” They do have to come early. The food sells out every day.
Before she acquired the new restaurant with its large kitchen, Berg was cooking for the Gulfport and Ocean Springs restaurants at a certified commercial kitchen close to her home in northern Hancock County and transported the food in warmers from there. Now her daughter Surata Rangani Berg delivers the meals to the Gulfport and Ocean Springs locations.
Ingredients come mostly from Oriental stores and includes locally grown produce. “In the summertime we have a lot of vegetables coming out of our garden at the farm where I live,” she said. “I plan all the food and every day is different. I see what grows in the garden locally and seasonally.”
The farm is part of the the New Talavan community, which is affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement.
Berg’s husband John, a New Orleans native, operates the farm and the temple.
They met in New Orleans 30 years ago and married when they both worked at the New Orleans Hare Krishna Temple. Later Maharani became an affiliate of the Food for Life International program. The restaurants are owned by the local Food for Life organization. Berg calls his wife “the heart” of the program, which regularly supplies food to the Gulf Coast Mission. “We feed people everywhere,” she said. “We try to help the community.”
Berg said she seeks feedback from her diners and she recalled a particularly satisfying response about the Good Karma experience from a customer who told her, “I’ve never seen a place where everybody is happy. The cook, the customers, everybody is smiling and having a good time.”